Exterior Power Polishing & Waxing
by Ross D. Vincenti, RVincenti@lbfc.com
What follows is a description of my approach for exterior power polishing and waxing. Note that what I am recommending is a lengthy process – set aside at least 4 to 5 hours to do it right, maybe more depending on your car’s condition.
Let’s talk about polishing first. With respect to new paint, I am assuming you have reached the stage where you have color sanded using 2000 grit paper. At this point your paint will appear shiny, but buffing it with various “goop” will really make it glow. With respect to an existing average paint job, this should also give you excellent results. I’ll discuss severely worn paint, too.
There’s a lot of articles on automotive finishes so I won’t bore you with any of that stuff except to say that paint does “breathe” and it does contain emollients and oils that make it shine. Paint will dry out if left exposed and unprotected by wax. Polishing and waxing both remove the “dead paint” and restore the emollients. Think of using a loofa sponge on your body, then putting on lotion. Same concept. I should also add that power buffing will generally not result in a “better” finish, just a quicker finish. I don’t care who you talk to, the fact is a real professional who does this stuff day in and day out on Rolls, Ferraris, Astons, Porsches, etc. can do as good if not a better job without a buffer as with. Since we are all pretty much novices don’t expect to turn your toad into a prince (although these tips will make it easier to look good).
Let me digress for a moment. If you are into the “hand” method there is one product I recommend exclusively – Glasso 562-1602 polishing compound available at your nearest automotive paint supply store. This stuff is priceless. You apply it using a terry cloth wadded up into a baseball size with a single layer pulled across the paint surface. Once deposited on the paint, keep rubbing in nice smooth medium circles. Over time you will notice that the compound is sticking to the rag, not the paint and it forms a very shiny surface. I’ve tried power buffing with this stuff but hand application seems to work better (you just sweat more). The only compound that comes close is Classic Finish Restorer available in most auto supply stores. The process is similar to wet sanding except the grit is even finer than 2000. This process seems to leave in the protective oils, but really cuts through a lot of surface coating. The Glasso can states “For industrial use only, photochemically reactive. Glasso 1602 is a white silicon free water mixable compound for fine polishing. It is recommended for the fine removal of sanding lines, for losing the edge on border areas and for removal of overspray dust particles.” You can also use, believe it or not, Mother’s Mag Wheel Polish on paint after wet sanding with 1500 grit. It seems to be a bit more abrasive than the Glasso (which by the way is made in West Germany I believe), but the results are also very good.
On to power buffing. Pads first. I recommend wool pads, period. Synthetic pads are less expensive and last longer, but they have a tendency to leave noticeable swirl marks. Don’t ever use a lace on pad unless you are planning to repaint your car. It will come off and at a most inopportune time or the cloth backing will work itself around and gouge the paint, probably on the middle of the hood (bonnet). Your friends will look at it and ask, “how did you get that big goober on your bonnet”. Use only the wool screw on pads, one sided, or the two sided pads available from 3M . Both of these types have rounded edges and are less likely to cut, gouge or burn the paint. 3M makes two pads, a fast cutting pad (# 05701) and a softer polishing pad (# 05705). The latest pads I have seen is the Meguiar’ 8 inch pad . It claims to eliminate swirl marks, but since it is made of foam, if you catch an edge it shreds pretty quick. You can reshape it with a wire brush while rotating it, but don’t take it down too far. Always use the pad at a low angle, pretty much flat to the car’s surface with only 5 degrees or so of tilt. Recommended buffing speeds are 1500-2500 for the 3M pads and 1750-3000 for the Meguiar’s pad.
Cleanliness is key by the way (and also next to Godliness if you are into that sorta thing). Pay attention, don’t get distracted, and make sure everything is squeaky clean before you start. Sweep out the garage – hose it out if necessary to get the dust out. Move everything out of the way. Clear a nice big path all the way around the car. Do not polish outside where airborne dirt and grime will get ground into the paint. If you must polish outside make sure you do it very early before the wind kicks up and in the shade. Make sure the temperature of the paint surface is cool, not cold and not warm or hot. Use clean pads, a different one for each type of compound, and wash the pads frequently because paint residue will build up and not only reduce the pad’s effectiveness but will also scratch the paint (ugh). Don’t use an old pad that has been laying around gathering dust. Plan on going through several pads to do one car – it is easier to slap on a new pad than to go clean it. Wear clean clothes, preferably without buttons and other scratchy trim (sweat pants and a sweat shirt are great) and wipe yourself off frequently to minimize dust. I usually just blast myself with the airhose from my compressor every now and then.
Obviously you need to wash the car first, dry completely, use compressed air to get the rest of the water out of the seams. By the way, don’t use regular old Palmolive dishwashing soap to wash your car. It is too harsh compared to the various brands of car wash soap available at auto supply stores. If you are really fanatical, grab your tool box and start removing as much trim as possible from the outside of the car, such as emblems, door handles, etc. You’ll always end up with some polish and wax build up around these areas if you don’t remove them first. Note, however, that you also increase the likelihood that you will scratch the paint putting this stuff back on. It’s a trade off.
As to compounds, I use Meguiar’s #3 Professional Machine Glaze for machine buffing and have so far not found anything noticeably better. The Classic Finish Restorer is pretty good, too, if you can’t get the Meguiar’s. Squirt some polishing compound onto the buffing pad ( a couple of table spoons will do – don’t over do it) and with the pad tilted the 5 degrees or so, figure out which side the buffer will pull the compound onto the surface of the paint. Using the buffer incorrectly will simply fling expensive compound onto the walls, you, the dog and the floor. Some guys I know hook up a ground wire from a water pipe to the car’s chassis to eliminate static electricity. I have no idea why they think this is important and I’ve never had that problem. Use a light touch with the buffer. Let me repeat – use a light touch with the buffer. The idea is to spread the compound around, constantly moving the buffer in a large random circular pattern. Some folks recommend doing the car in sections, but after years of doing this I can say that in a proper, cool, shaded, dust free, non-windy location (read – garage) you should be able to do the entire vehicle without stopping to do “sections”. Moreover, you will always see some overlap when going from section to section. I usually start at the front of the car and simply work my way around until I get back to the front.
If you are new to a power buffer, I suggest that you practice on some pile of trash parked outside, such as your spouse’s or friend’s vehicle. Practice a lot. Plan on using a lot of compound and on ruining the paint on the practice vehicle. I suggest that you start on a nice flat planar surface first, with the buffer on low speed only. At high speeds a buffer can really take off like an Olympic discus if you let go. Be very careful on compound (curved) surfaces until you have mastered flat surfaces. The pressure variations that you will place on the buffer (despite your best efforts not to) will result in high and low spots. Be conservative. Remember, you can always go back and buff more. You cannot go back and paint (well, okay, you can but it gets expensive). Be very careful around door frames and where body parts meet – the paint is a lot thinner here and will easily buff down to bare metal. If you let the buffer sit in one spot you will burn or seriously thin the paint. After a while of going over the whole car you will notice that the pad is actually polishing the paint, not just spreading the compound around. Check the condition of your pad frequently – does it need cleaning? Rinse with warm water, dry and finish buffing. After practicing for a while you will get the feel for proper pressure and proper angle of attack, i.e., the tilt angle. Note that you really should not need to polish a car more than once or maybe twice a year at most. Waxing is the thing you want to do more frequently. One last thing about polishing – I will sometimes finish up with a hand application of Meguiar’s #7, which has little or no abrasive compounds in it. Meguiar’s #7 is a resealer that restores the emollients. Great stuff.
Final notes on severely worn paint. Don’t bother with polishing compound, get some good old fashioned rubbing compound, but be prepared for some really drastic paint removal. Rubbing compound is typically much more abrasive than polishing compound. It is used for “knocking down” a new paint job or for a heavily oxidized old paint job. This stuff will cut right through heavy, and I mean heavy, oxidation, etc. But, keep in mind that you run a greater risk of burning right through the paint. I don’t recommend rubbing compound except on really terminally trashed paint. Don’t use it on a power buffer around door edges, hood or trunk edges, etc. It is just too abrasive. Do these areas by hand first, then try to feather in the remainder with the power buffer. Let’s face it, if you have to resort to rubbing compound your paint is toast. Okay, now that you have polished the car, the next step is waxing it. Since you now spent almost the entire morning on polishing alone, take a break, watch TV, play with the dog, drink a tall cold one and relax.
If you have skipped the polishing part and just want to wax it, fine, but please wash the car. Nothing ruins paint faster than waxing dirt into it. Should be self-evident, but it’s not to some people. Start with a good quality wax, such as Meguiar’s , Mother’s , Classic or Blue Coral . Note that there are a lot of less expensive “cleaner waxes” such as Raindance, Kit, Turtle Wax , and others that profess to “clean as they wax”. Avoid these as they contain abrasives that will put fine scratches all over the paint. They will clean alright, but also scratch.
You don’t need to power buff the wax in, and in fact I hand apply wax. Why? Read the second paragraph of this article – the polish is what makes the paint shine, and the wax simply protects and lubricates it. You don’t need to buff it into the paint. Use a small clean white terry cloth towel, about 4 inches square that has been slightly moistened and wrung out. Apply the wax in large random circles starting from one end and working around the car the same way you did when you buffed it to avoid overlaps. If you are using a high quality non-abrasive wax you should see little or no color rubbing off on the applicator rag. Also, you don’t need to apply tons of wax, as a very thin coat will protect it just fine. Remember, you need to wax the car every month or two, thus putting on a lot of wax can lead to build up. As a matter of fact, there should be almost very little wax residue visible after the initial application. There is no need to let the wax develop a chalky texture. Some will disagree with me, but the wax gets into the microscopic pores of the paint as you rub it in. Letting it dry out accomplishes nothing. You will need to use a couple of nice medium size clean fluffy white terry cloth towels to lightly buff away any residue. If you used the proper amount of wax there will not be a lot of removal work to do. I usually fold both towels into 2 foot squares and lean on one while buffing with the other. Don’t forget to very carefully clean off the door edges, hood edges, etc. These gather wax and look like hell after a couple of wax jobs when they have not been wiped down.
Once you have finished with the basic wax, it is time to move on to the final wax – pure carnuba. This stuff is sold by Pro-Wax and Mother’s to name just a couple. Please note that many waxes state they contain carnuba wax, and that’s fine. Usually it’s a mix of carnuba and some other waxes. But what you want is “pure 100% carnuba”, nothing else. Be forewarned, it’s expensive stuff, but worth every penny. Pro-Wax is available at automotive paint supply houses. Apply it the same way as the first wax, and remove the residue. The paint should be as smooth as a baby’s bottom and have a deep glow now. Carnuba works better than anything else I have seen at making water bead up on the surface. It simply will not stick to the paint, as the carnuba somehow reduces surface tension to zero.
Some final tips – never wipe your car with a dry towel. Always dampen it very slightly because the water acts as a lubricant and minimizes scratching. To avoid getting wax or polishing compound on rubber trim, mask it off first with masking tape (just remember to take off immediately after through waxing to avoid tape residue). Sometimes the tape won’t stick well, if this is the case, try wiping the rubber trim down with rubbing alcohol first. Sometimes wax and polishing compound gets into the windshield washer nozzles, clogging them. If you can, remove the nozzles before polishing, or use a dental pick device to clean out the dried residue. Also, for you really nutty concours freaks out there, here’s a tip I learned at a recent Porsche concours event. Pick up some powdered cornstarch at the local market and use it as a final buffing compound after the Meguiar’s #3 and before the Meguiar’s #7. Apparently it works very nice in bringing out a beautiful shine. I have not tried it yet, but the guy I spoke to swears by it and his coupe’s paint was flawless. As to chrome, the absolute best way I have found to clean and polish chrome is to use your bench or pedestal mounted polisher/grinder, remove the pieces from the vehicle and polish them with an 8 inch medium grade buffing wheel using Eastwood’s (or other manufacturer’s) white tripoli buffing compound. I know that not everyone has a buffer, but it really does a phenomenal job on chrome pieces. The bumperettes on my 64 Spitfire looked like dog doo and I was certain I needed to have them rechromed until I took them off and began buffing them one night. Wow, what a difference! I can offer wheel buffing tips, too, but you can get a video tape from Eastwood on the subject that is just as good as anything I could tell you. For those of you who use car covers – wash them frequently, because when you throw a dirty car cover over a freshly polished paint job, the movement of the cover will grind the dirt into the paint leaving scratches all over the roof, bonnet and boot lid.
Well, that’s it. Hope this is helpful and not too boring to the masses. As usual, your results may vary. Cheers,
Ross D. Vincenti